The Abolition of the Two-Track System

While there is widespread agreement that the mistreatment and exploitation of adjuncts is wrong, there is still no agreement on the source of the problem or what should be done about it. There remains a vast discrepancy between what union leaders say and what they do. The three faculty unions continue to focus on trying to protect tenure for the few and to increase their ranks. Far from demanding equality for the contingent faculty, the unions keep suggesting that quality can only be achieved on the tenure track.

The contingent faculty movement is in much the same state as the antislavery movement was during the 1820s, when the American Colonization Society was the dominant organization. While admitting that slavery was problematic, members did not feel that African Americans were equal, and said that they should be shipped to Africa. Even slaveholders joined the society, because it was especially concerned about the dangers of the growing numbers of free blacks.

Abraham Lincoln was a longtime proponent of colonization. He was favorably disposed to colonization as late as 1863, even after he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, Eric Foner documents Lincoln’s slow evolution toward the idea of equality between the races. With Lincoln’s knowledge and approval, in 1863 his own administration had signed a “colonization contract” with Wall Street brokers to transport five hundred blacks to a Haitian island for the purpose of growing cotton.83

It was only after this project ended in disastrous failure, with mutiny and dozens of deaths, that Lincoln finally abandoned the idea: “By 1864, although Lincoln still saw voluntary emigration as a kind of safety valve for individual blacks dissatisfied with their condition in the United States, he no longer envisioned large-scale colonization.”84

While Lincoln had been slow to abandon the idea of colonization, America’s abolition movement had turned against it decades earlier. In 1831, William Lloyd Garrison had begun publication of the Liberator and called for the immediate and unconditional abolition of slavery and complete equality for all blacks. His motto was “No Union with Slaveholders.” In 1833, he had formed the American Anti-Slavery Society. Though it took over thirty years, and a bloody civil war, as well as aggressive efforts by the Radical Republicans in Congress, slavery was finally abolished with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

While all three faculty unions have issued policy statements deploring the plight of the contingent faculty, none has acknowledged its own role in creating and perpetuating the two-track system of faculty apartheid. None has called for the abandonment of the two-track system and complete equality between contingents and tenured faculty on such issues as salary, benefits, and job security, much less developed a coherent plan to bring about those provisions that are undeniably central to workplace rights.

All three are hoping to preserve the two-track system by reforming it with slow incremental steps. The AFT’s FACE plan aims to restore the tenured faculty to what their leaders see as their rightful majority, since the easiest path to “excellence” is to get more people on the tenure track, where the advantages have already been secured. The AFT wants to convert more parttime positions to full-time positions; it has shown no interest in promoting existing part-timers to full-timers.

While the AAUP’s Contingent Faculty Committee has at least called for converting existing contingent faculty to tenure-eligible positions, former president Cary Nelson has gone further, saying that he is in favor of tenure for all long-term adjuncts. This would of course leave them with significantly lower salaries, but Nelson says it will “give them the job security they need to advocate for better working conditions without fear of reprisal, and it eliminates the sometimes crippling stress accompanying at-will employment.”85

And, of course, his proposal would do nothing for the short-term contingent faculty. Since the AAUP usually requires seven years until a tenure decision is made, this could still leave hundreds of thousands of adjuncts in the academic ghetto, or without any job at all if current prejudice toward adjuncts continues unabated.

In The Invisible Faculty, Judith Gappa and David Leslie said, “It is time for institutions of higher education that hire and use part-time faculty to end the current bifurcated system.”86 They quickly pointed out, however, that there would be resistance, not simply from college administrators but from the tenured faculty: “The major advocates of the status quo are many of the tenured faculty members who are its beneficiaries.”87

The tenured faculty—and the unions and union leaders who represent them—all have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of the two-track system. The tenured faculty benefit from it financially; the unions work for their benefit to control access to the tenure track.

The nineteenth-century ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote:


If there is no struggle there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them, and these will continue till they are resisted by either words or blows or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.88


Much like Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, we need an American Anti-Contingency Association, which will be dedicated to the abolition of the two-track system in academe and complete equality for all professors, whose teaching should be judged on its merit, not on the tenure status held by the individual. There should be a single salary scale for all professors at a college, a single scale for raises, and a single set of procedures for job security and for grievances. Whether a professor teaches part or full-time should be at his or her discretion, and pay and nonteaching duties should be prorated according to 100 percent of a teaching load.

All college professors should have meaningful job security, and their academic freedom should be protected. America cannot be a democracy with a higher education system based on inequality. Colleges can no longer hold out the promise of opportunity and a better life to their students while denying these same opportunities to the professors who make all of this possible. Students and parents should no longer be willing to patronize academic sweatshops; they should begin to demand change or else boycott those institutions that will not change.

The contingent faculty movement is a civil and human rights movement. The time has come for direct action. Higher education is not simply another commodity produced by American factories; it is the building block of our culture and our democracy.

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